- February 23, 2020
- 08:00 AM
Sermon for 23 January 2020 (Last Epiphany Year A)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Exodus 24.1-2,9-18; Psalm 2; Matthew 17.1-9
Title: They Beheld God
“God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24.11).
My friends, what are you looking for? What do you hope to see?
I wonder if we have any lovers of jigsaw puzzles with us here today. Anyone?
It’s been a while since I last put one together, but I finished one yesterday! I wouldn’t say that I LOVED it, but it was enjoyable, I will admit.
Do you know that feeling when you have this one puzzle piece, and you look and look and look, and no matter how much you look, you cannot find its place? And then later, when you do eventually find it, it’s quite obvious at that point, right? Clearly, the piece belongs right here. But at that time, you just could not see it.
This is the end of the brief season of Epiphany. Do you remember the meaning behind that name? Today, an epiphany is a sudden flash of insight, and that’s not far from the original Greek meaning, which meant something like a sudden vision, a revelation, a moment of insight into something that previously had been hidden.
Then and now, Epiphany is always related to vision, to the ability to see and perceive that which may not be clear and obvious at first.
Think of how the season of Epiphany begins: the Wise scholars from the East find a young child in an obscure village, and they perceive a new King.
And this theme continues each week of Epiphany. John baptizes Jesus and the people see the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove, and they perceive that this Jesus is no ordinary human.
The next week, John sees Jesus walking by and he declares, Look, here is the Lamb of God! Two disciples go to follow Jesus and he asks them that famous question, What are you looking for?
And then Jesus walks along the shore of Lake Gennesaret, the Sea of Galilee, and he sees Andrew and Peter, James and John. Ordinary fishermen at work.
Or so it seemed. Clearly, when Jesus looked at these men, he saw something that no one else could see, something that they could not even see within themselves.
Who were these simple men? What were they capable of? What was the ceiling of their potential? Think about that!
You know people like this. We see them every single day. Just ordinary folk, living ordinary lives, doing their work. Most of these people live and die and the world hardly even notices.
That most likely would have been the fate of Peter and James and John, IF Jesus had not seen them that day as they worked on their boats.
What was HE looking for? What did he see? Clearly, he saw potential, possibility.
And then right here at the very end of Epiphany, we get to see what happens when the tables are turned. Jesus takes Peter and James and John on a brief journey, and here – in this mountaintop experience – they get to see HIM in all of his potential, in the light and glory that was behind every part of HIS work and his mission.
Perhaps, more than anything else, Jesus was teaching these ordinary men how to see beyond the surface level, beyond the obvious.
Let me tell you a story about a time when this kind of vision was sadly lacking.
In 1866, Thomas Edison came to Louisville, KY at the young age of 19 to work as a telegraph operator for Western Union. The city was booming after the Civil War as the West was rapidly opening up for development. To go West, many people traveled down the Ohio River. But the boats had to stop in Louisville, because the Falls of the Ohio are found there. The city grew rapidly because of this. Thomas Edison went to this boomtown to begin his career.
But, guess what? Edison was fired after working for Western Union in Louisville after less than two years! When he started, he had asked for the night shift so that he could spend his days studying, researching, experimenting – these were his real passions in life. But one night in 1867 – most likely during a slow night shift, when there were few messages to transmit – Edison was experimenting with the creation of a battery to store electricity. That would turn out to be a pretty useful thing, don’t you think?
Anyway, he unfortunately spilled some of the sulphuric acid he was using, and it ran through the cracks in the boards of the second floor where he worked and then the acid dripped down onto the desk of the big boss below.
There was no way to hide that kind of mess. In the morning, the boss discovered it, and he was far from amused. When he discovered the culprit, Edison was immediately fired.
With his eyes, from his surface level point of view, that boss could see nothing more than an annoying young man who was distracted, who was making a mess and who was not sufficiently focused on doing his job. What he failed to see was one of the most creative minds that the world has ever known, and one who was willing to work with incredible diligence and dedication to accomplish amazing things.
Of course, Thomas Edison could not content himself with simply operating telegraph equipment. His mind was restless, constantly exploring and inventing. He wanted to improve the telegraph, and to improve everything else along with it!
In fact, after being fired, Edison moved to New Jersey and, right away, he began to reinvent the entire telegraphing industry! He developed the double telegraph, then the quadruple telegraph. In his career, he received more than 125 patents for inventions related to the telegraph.
Edison was a natural creator, maker and inventor. He created a fire alarm telegraph for urban fire departments to be notified as quickly as possible. He created an electric vote counter for use by Congress. He revolutionized dozens of industries. Of course, the lightbulb is his most famous invention, and his discoveries with electric lighting, with recorded music, with motion pictures and with cameras – all of these have changed the human experience forever.
In the course of his career, 1,093 patents were registered with the name of Thomas Alva Edison. And imagine! All of that could have been part of Western Union, and could have turned them into the most important company in the history of the world! If only that one boss in Louisville had looked at young Thomas Edison and could have seen his potential – could have seen beyond the surface.
You see, my friends, the truth is that we generally see what we are looking for.
Frances Frei (FRAY) is a Professor of Technology and Operations Management at Harvard Business School who is passionate about how leaders create the conditions for organizations and individuals to thrive by designing for excellence in strategy, operations and culture. I recently heard her explain in an interview that a leader, in any context whatsoever, can maximize the potential in the members of their team with two essential elements: by creating and maintaining consistently high standards, while at the same time demonstrating deep devotion to each member of the team.
(BTW, you can listen to the interview here: https://www.ted.com/talks/the_ted_interview_frances_frei_s_three_pillars_of_leadership)
I listened to Frances Frei explain this, and I thought, Yes! THAT is exactly what Jesus did with his disciples! With people like Peter and James and John.
Jesus created and maintained the highest possible standards. He pushed everyone around him to grow, to become more, to not be satisfied with the same old, same old.
But he wedded that with a deep devotion to his team, to his friends. He saw them, he looked right at them. He saw them, and he loved them. And they knew it!
And that commitment from him made them WANT to become more! Perhaps they would not have worded exactly it in this way, but clearly he believed in them, and they knew it.
Now, on a practical level, what is required for you and me to see others in this way?
Intention and effort. If this mountaintop transfiguration happened in our time, you know what might have happened! Peter and James and John would be staring at their smartphones, waiting for their Instagram feed to load over that slow rural connection. Probably annoyed that they couldn’t watch the latest YouTube video. And who knows? Maybe they would have missed it all together!
Perhaps you are one who is NOT tempted to stare at the little screen in your hand like this, but either way, the point is the same: the person in front of you at any particular moment deserves your undivided attention. Look at them. Look beyond the surface. See them. Listen to them. And never, ever sell them short.
On the spiritual level, embrace the fact that God sees you, truly sees you, and that in you God sees potential. Honestly, it is not that Peter and James and John were hidden gems that were waiting to be discovered, like the next star on America’s Got Talent.
They WERE ordinary folk, and out of them GOD was able to draw amazing possibilities. Why should it be any different with ordinary folk like you and me?
Consider this world like an enormous jigsaw puzzle. Currently there are 7.7 billion human pieces, and many more non-human ones. God never gets confused when working on this puzzle. Because God knows each one of us and where we can fit to do the most good.
Is that hard to believe? Well, first consider that nothing is impossible for God. And then, try it! Talk to God about it. Ask God to show you right now where YOU fit in the work of the kingdom of heaven.
After all, isn’t this precisely what you are looking for?